As a Matter of Interest

by Theodore Dalrymple (February 2013)

Yesterday, for example, I was in a second-hand bookshop in a small town in England with a beautiful ancient abbey, a famous school and a good Indian restaurant. The bookshop was in a low-ceilinged mediaeval building and I sneezed as soon as I entered.

Malays are not a timid people, and, although in India secret poisoning became one of the most prominent, if not the most prevalent, of court atrocities under Mussulman rule, the Muhammadan Malay, as a general rule, attempts vengeance by means of poison when he is bearing a grudge and brooding, and when violent or other measures appear to him to be too dangerous or too uncertain. Very often, when jealousy or malice inspires him, the intention is rather to cause annoyance or injury less serious than death.

I was taken back, mentally, to the time at school when a friend and I plotted to put phenolphthalein in the tea of a master whom we disliked. Phenolphthalein, of which there was a plentiful supply in the chemistry laboratory, is a powerful laxative. I am glad to say that the pleasure of plotting, and of imagining the outcome, was so great that it we deemed it unnecessary to proceed to action.

In addition to technical accounts of the poisons found by Malays in frogs and toads, fish, beetles, moths and caterpillars, jungle plants and cultivated vegetables (to say nothing of arsenic, the employment of which may apparently be suspected by the inhibition of the growth of maggots in the corpse), are many fascinating anecdotes in Malay Poisons:

was also observed in a delirious state, rolling on the floor and uttering inarticulate cries like the mewing of a kitten.

A friend of mine, a professor of pharmacology, was recently responsible for a brilliant piece of detective work involving eastern vegetable poisons. A woman of Indian descent poisoned her husband or lover (I forget which, but probably the husband, since the husbands of poisoners usually have to go first) by putting something in his curry. Clinically, it appeared to be aconite, the poison in the common plant Aconitum napellus, but no aconitine was found in the curry on chemical analysis. My friend suggested that the poisoning might have been by pseudo-aconitine instead, clinically indistinguishable in its effects from aconitine, but chemically different, and found in the close Indian relative of Aconitum napellus, Aconitum ferox. And so, on analysis, it proved, and the poisoner was convicted.

Let me conclude this paean to Malay Poisons and Charm Cures by quoting its final paragraph:

A blinding powder, that is to say, a powder used by thieves to disconcert their pursuers, obtained in 1913 from the Ulu Kesial district in Kelantan, was found by Dr. Dent, Government Analyst, Straits Settlements, to consist of pounded glass and sand containing grains of alluvial tin ore (bijeh). Another blinding powder used by Malays for the same purpose is composed of quicklime and ground pepper.

piercing qualities of boredom are implicit in those three possible etymologies. Each of the three of them deserves to be correct.

Farewell Fear.

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